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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Noodling through Norse Myths; Folklorist's Notebook

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Some of the books I've been moving to and from various end tables, usually not as neat as this.

It has been a week of Norse myth study for me as I try to understand the differences between the 19th Century Swedish writer Victor Rydberg's versions of the stories and most other common versions. I am working on a full-blown article on Rydberg's process from the outside and will at some point get to reading what Rydberg had to say for himself. I'm not doing a full-scale review of the books shown, though I will point out some things I've enjoyed about various takes on Norse myths.

My favorite of the week has to be Kevin Crossley-Holland's text, though I have not read it in its entirety. Crossley-Holland's text opens with a lovely retelling of Snorri Sturluson's 13th Century Gylfaginning from the opening of his Prose Edda. If you know nothing else about the extant sources of Norse mythology, Snorri and Edda are the biggest and oldest names in the business. I don't think I've seen another general Norse myths book (readable by young people, but very enjoyable for all ages) that opens with this specific a nod to the real source material for all Norse myths. It is a very promising sign.

I have been thinking particularly about versions of myth, the canons of myth, if you will. I was lucky enough to read D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths as a kid. I read it cover to cover many times and became very protective over the versions of the stories it contained. I don't think I was willing to accept more facts about the Greek gods until I took a course in undergrad and read Hesiod's Theogony. It made me think about what the "real" Greek myths were and I don't think I really made headway on the general concept of the "real" versions of myths until the last couple of weeks as I've read Rydberg, a thoughtful scholar who nevertheless departs from traditional versions of Norse myths, but does so using textual support from accepted sources. It's a tricky needle he has threaded and I can't really understand what he's done without checking every detail and even then, it's dizzying.

In case you are wondering about the other texts in the picture, I can't say too much about Gaiman because I just haven't had the gumption to read him through because (I feel scandalous admitting this because I think the man is a genius) I'm not impressed. I will have to read him through entirely, but I haven't seen anything in his version that stands out to me as adding anything to the subject. Having only read parts of each book, I have to say that I much prefer Crossley-Holland. Not only does he give the nod to the sources, but his prose is just more colorful.

As much as the D'Aulaires delighted me as a child, it was partly reading their Norse myths that sort of disappointed me about Norse myths, which I hadn't really studied before reading their Norse Mythology. I found it to be lacking when compared to my first love, the myths of the Greeks. I think the D'Aulaires' do a great job with the material and I am in love with their style of illustration, even if it seems to suit the bright world of the Greeks better. I don't really think it is their fault that I liked Greek myths more. I think that my initial disappointment in their Norse myths, rather, is due to the the fact that the Greek myths are just lusher and fuller than the Norse myths. And that is what has driven me to research the matter further and to search for a scholar like Rydberg, who squeezes more juice out of the fragmentary and sometimes confused source materials.

Johan Egerkran's Norse Gods has become one of my favorite bedtime reading books because I love his illustrations and I like the prose, which is peppered with quotations from the Edda. But the illustrations are bold and dark and spooky, which just strikes me as appropriate for the rougher, colder world of the north. It is a lovely clothbound text that I just like to reread when I'm drowsing off to sleep.

I reserve judgement on National Geographic's Treasury of Norse Mythology, because I have read only snippets. I have no complaints about the parts I've read, but I do not like the illustrations, which present bulbous, stylized, and to my eyes, ugly versions of the gods.


My next scheduled post (Thursday, November 12) is on a translation of Gilgamesh I am in love with and hope you will try out. Once I finish reading Rydberg and writing my article about his Norse myths, I will return to Abenaki and Northeast Native people's myths and legends and try to publish something before American Thanksgiving.

I am also working on adapting the Scandinavian Christmas folk song "Haugebonden," which I still hope to be able to record before Christmas. I discovered partial chords to play a version of it this week, but the version differed from the first one I studied and the words to most of my verses no longer scan to the rhythms of the song. I will have to revise the verses I've adapted and finish the rest of them. News

A mixed media three dimensional project: the Catoblepas.

My Catoblepas sculpture is almost ready to paint. Check him out in the Sculpture section of The pictures have gotten a bit hard to scroll through lately given the number, and I hope to be able to be able to curate a bit better as I start the last stages of the sculpture. I am also trying to make headway in completing the other sections of the website, which have remained "under construction" since we launched last summer. I don't have specific news to share, but I have made a list of chores to start working on.

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